Los Angeles, CA—America’s burgeoning pro-housing movement has many layers, and I recently witnessed one of them firsthand on a rare rainy night in Los Angeles. The activist group Abundant Housing LA was hosting its monthly meeting in a south-side Latino food mart, serving what seems to be the mandatory SoCal culinary combo for social settings, tacos and beer. The event featured a 4-person panel of local land-use experts, and another 50 attendees, who were united around a common cause: loosening land-use regulations to build more housing. Thus the meeting was, without even using the word, part of a growing “Yimby” movement that is spreading through the message boards and political ranks of urban America.
I first covered this movement for Forbes in June, after attending the first-ever YIMBY conference in Boulder, CO. I defined the movement then as a counter-punch to an urban American housing policy status quo that has become unsustainable. This status quo features the severe mismatch between population growth and housing supply in the nation’s most desirable cities, which has led to shortages, price inflation, overcrowding and displacement. The status quo is upheld by political barriers that make the solution (obvious as it may be) feel unreachable. That is, a tight regulatory framework—from zoning laws to urban growth boundaries to slow approval processes—has metastasized over a century to discourage construction. A “Nimby”–or “not in my back yard”–mentality among existing residents has only strengthened this regulatory state. All the while, major metros like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles increase their populations by six figures annually, exacerbating the housing shortage.
The Yimby movement—or “yes in my backyard”—is the first coalition, outside of established business interests like the Chamber of Commerce or the National Association of Realtors, to challenge this anti-housing climate. In my half-year of westward U.S. travel since the conference, I’ve witnessed some of its ground-level workings.
Although fragmented, the movement’s growth seems to have risen from two polarities. The intellectual half is largely along the East Coast: in 2011, Fordham University graduate Nikolai Fedak founded what is believed to be the first Yimby website, New York YIMBY. The pro-growth real estate blog makes the moral and economic case for more housing, accompanying like-minded blogs such as Market Urbanism and Greater Greater Washington.
The grassroots activist side sits more on the West Coast, germinating among a colorful hodgepodge of non-profits, informal civic groups, beer hall meetups, blogging and social media platforms, and firebrand individuals, from beachtown gadflies to downtown flâneurs. The most formal body so far would be the SF YIMBY Party, which is an organized coalition of Bay Area groups with names like GrowSF and Palo Alto Forward. San Francisco’s Yimby figurehead is Sonja Trauss, a self-described anarchist who runs the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBarf). Trauss has been covered by numerous national media outlets, and spends her days distributing literature, speaking at public hearings, and pulling hard-nosed political stunts, like trying to stack the anti-growth local Sierra Club chapter with her allies.
Yimbyism is less developed in other major cities, but there is a similar ecosystem nonetheless in San Diego, Los Angeles, Boston, Minneapolis, Denver, Austin and elsewhere. The concept has blown up on Twitter in particular: there are handles for a “Tech Yimby”, a “Garden State Yimby”, a “London Yimby”, a “Bilbao Yimby”, and on and on, with one Yimby handle even surfacing, unbeknownst to me, in my tiny hometown of Charlottesville, VA.
Abundant Housing LA, where I visited in December, might symbolize the upward potential of the Yimby movement, which leans young and progressive anyway. The group was opened up to grassroots membership just five months ago by several entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s. Nonetheless, says director and local housing developer Brent Gaisford, “we’ve grown to more than 400 members who actively support affordable and market rate housing developments, as well as advocate for upzoning.” The group hopes to soon form a think tank that publishes policy papers targeting particularly odious Los Angeles regulations, such as the city’s insistence on maintaining vast swaths of industrial zoning despite its largely post-industrial economy.